Comms + policy. Author of #digitaldiplomacy (2015), Twitter for Diplomats (2013). My views here.
Our goal is to give every person a voice.
This is what Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a long post last week on Facebook and the election. The company — together with Google and other social media platforms — has been under fire and faced increasing criticism over its alleged role in the 2016 US presidential election. The issue revolves around how Facebook allowed fake news disguised as real news stories to spread unchecked on the social media site.
And people, if they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it’s on Facebook and people can see it, as long as it’s on social media, people start believing it. And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.
And again this week during his trip to Berlin, Obama said:
If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.
But Zuckerberg — despite even employees at Facebook are starting to voice their concerns and internally questioning what the platform’s responsibilities might be — has outwardly defended the company as a nonpartisan information source: “To think it influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” he said at the Techonomy conference in California.
“It’s not a crazy idea,” a Facebook employee who works in the social network’s engineering division told BuzzFeed. “What’s crazy is for him to come out and dismiss it like that, when he knows, and those of us at the company know, that fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season.”
On his post on the election, Zuckerberg stressed: “Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”
A BuzzFeed analysis found that top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.
In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. Within the same time period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.
On election night, Bobby Goodlatte, a former product designer at Facebook, wrote on his wall: “Sadly, News Feed optimizes for engagement. As we’ve learned in this election, bullshit is highly engaging. These outlets, and Donald Trump, have no concern for the truth, and really only care for engagement.”
But it also states: “A bias towards truth isn’t an impossible goal.”
Beyond the issue of fake news and hoaxes, the influence that Facebook might have on elections — but not just elections — needs to be taken into consideration and the debate that it created internally is certainly a very introspective process on the very nature of the company.
According to the New York Times, former and current employees say “This image of Facebook as a partisan influencer and distributor of bad information is at odds with how the company views itself.”
It all goes back to the question of whether or not Facebook is a media organization. If it is, its influence is better defined and the company will need to better address content. If it’s not, well… Then the company might need to self-define its influence and admit it, rather than call itself as merely a neutral platform.
On that very issue, Matt Navarra, head of content at The Next Web, wrote: “Not sure you can keep up the denial here. You need to accept the power and influence Facebook has and use independent editors to deal with the issues here.”
In response, Zuckerberg stressed how “Facebook is mostly about helping people stay connected with friends and family” and how the company’s business is also about “building software for companies” and “building planes to beam internet access.” Yet, he said, we don’t call ourselves an enterprise software company or a aerospace company.
“For years companies like Google and Facebook have hidden behind the argument of we just use math,” Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former Facebook employee, its first product manager for ad targeting, told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.
“We don’t have the position of the editorship function, right? We don’t decide what we show you. It’s just math. We optimize for engagement. We show you stuff that we know you’re going to comment and like on and that’s it. And I think when the stakes become American democracy, that excuse just isn’t good enough. As you just said, I think in the future they will have to assume those responsibilities of editorship. Because they are kind of a media company not just a tech company.”
Addressing whether or not Facebook is a media company, Zuckerberg highlighted:
News and media are not the primary things people do on Facebook, so I find it odd when people insist we call ourselves a news or media company in order to acknowledge its importance.
I want to stress that what matters here — and this is my personal view — is first of all whether users see Facebook as a media company or not. It is important that we, as users, understand what the platform is, how it works, and what it means for other users around the world, whether in fact it’s a media company or not.
The identity of Facebook is not for Facebook to determine. It is for those who use the platform to identify what the platform is: for some it might be a way to stay in touch with family and friends; for others it might be a way of sharing photos and videos, or look at new products or stay in touch with their favorite brands; for others it is a media company that provides news, just like other platforms are.
But if it is a neutral technology company, then some of its inner-workings might need to be addressed, including the functioning of the news feed algorithm, which seems at best cloudy and certainly add to the idea that Facebook possibly creates that “dust cloud of nonsense” that Obama mentioned.
In addition, as a technology and social media platform like many others, Facebook works closely with campaigns.
“Facebook has hundreds of sales people with a huge office in Washington, D.C.,” says Antonio Garcia Martinez.
“And they literally go and tell political advertisers, look Facebook is the most influential platform in the world, we will win you an election and then Zuck turns around and says, no, there’s no possibly way that Facebook can influence the election. It’s really disingenuous of him to sort of claim this and I think on the face of it, really false.”
Wired magazine recently reported that, “according to President-elect Donald Trump’s digital director Brad Parscale, the social media giant was massively influential — not because it was tipping the scales with fake news, but because it helped generate the bulk of the campaign’s $250 million in online fundraising.”
Our biggest incubator that allowed us to generate that money was Facebook. Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing: Twitter for Mr. Trump, and Facebook for fundraising.
However, I disagree with Wired when they write: “Whether fake news did or didn’t affect the election’s outcome, Facebook as a platform did.”
Indeed, fake news might not be the real issue here — we as users need to be able to discern what is true from what is fake — but Facebook as a platform is not the influencer. The veritable influencer here is the user, whether it’s a campaign looking for votes, or a ‘civilian’ skipping through pieces of news and posts from friends.
That said, both users and Facebook itself have still lots of growing up to do. But this is a process and it’ll take time.
Justin Kan writes on NewCo Shift: “Some of our tech companies have user populations larger than the biggest countries. We need to hold ourselves and our tech and business leaders to a higher standard.”
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